Seventy-two years ago, on May 8, 1945, after six long years, World War II in Europe finally came to a close. Eight days previously, Adolph Hitler had committed suicide, and 24 hours earlier, Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower had accepted Germany’s unconditional surrender. Europe was free, although the full extent of Nazi horrors was still being revealed as Allied troops marched through Central and Eastern Europe.
The Royal Family appeared again and again on the balcony at Buckingham Palace, waving (it must have seemed to them) interminably to the adoring crowds below, crowds amongst which the young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, were secretly mingling.
King George VI’s speech, broadcast on that still relatively new medium, radio, gave thanks to God for “a great deliverance,” and remembered…
those who will not come back: their constancy and courage in battle, their sacrifices and endurance in the face of a merciless enemy; let us remember the men in all the services, and the women in all the services, who have laid down their lives. We have come to the end of our tribulation and they are not with us at the moment of our rejoicing.
Winston Churchill, the man who “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” broadcast a stirring address to the nation calling for “a brief period of rejoicing,” acknowledging the great victory, yet warning of…
the toil and efforts that lie ahead. Japan, with all her treachery and greed, remains unsubdued. The injury she has inflicted on Great Britain, the United States, and other countries, and her detestable cruelties, call for justice and retribution. We must now devote all our strength and resources to the completion of our task, both at home and abroad. Advance, Britannia! Long live the cause of freedom! God save the King!
And Britain did rejoice. Red, white, and blue bunting was sold by the mile, made available at very low cost without the need of ration books to purchase. The Ministry of Food paid special attention to the supply of beer in London and other major cities, making sure it was adequate to the celebration. Blackouts were lifted, and after-dark parties in the streets were de rigueur again. Church bells were unmuffled, and rang openly once more, calling people to worship and to services of thanksgiving. There was music. And dancing. And Lord only knows what else.
Worldwide, celebrations were equally heartfelt, and equally mindful of the fact that all was not yet over. The USSR celebrated VE Day on May 9, while, here and there, still fighting recalcitrant pockets of German troops refusing to surrender. New Zealand also celebrated “a day late” because of time zone differences and, along with Australia, kept a watchful eye on events not all that far to the North and West. In France, huge crowds gathered in the Champs d’Elysees, as (not quite) 50 million Frenchmen belted out “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” Half a million people swarmed into Times Square in New York (President Truman dedicated the day to FDR, who had passed away less than a month earlier), many waving newspapers bearing the iconic headline: “IT’S V-E DAY! Remember Pearl Harbor!”
But the most joyous celebrations were in Great Britain, a country that had paid such a heavy price for this war (over 300,000 military men and women dead, and over 50,000 civilian casualties, in a war in which “collateral damage” wasn’t often given a second thought). On VE day, the nation was united, as one with the single thought, “We won!”
Those of you who’ve been kind enough to read a few of my posts before this one, are probably thinking, by now, something like “Nice history lesson and all, @She, but where on earth’s the family? Surely they’re going to make an appearance here somewhere?”
Indeed. Not to worry. Here they are:
Back row, left to right: Auntie Mary, Uncle Arthur, Auntie Issy, Dad, Auntie Pat, and Uncle Maurice. Front row: Grandpa Charles and Granny Louise. Oh, and sitting on the ground by Granny’s feet? That’s Barney.
My mother’s family was much smaller, and not so accommodating with a photo. Over there, we had just Grandpa Tom, Granny Molly, Uncle John, and Mum.
Usually, when I write about my family, I write about its uniqueness and its eccentricity, because I love both of those things so much. Today, though, I’m writing about something else I love–about how ordinary my wartime family was–and how the people in it were indistinguishable from the other 46 million of their countrymen and women. How they went all-in, no matter their age, no matter their occupation, no matter their sex, no matter their abilities, to win the war. In that respect, they were like just about everybody else in wartime Britain.
Because my mother’s side of the family is much younger than my dad’s there’s a wide age span among my uncles and aunts, from Uncle John, who was eight when war broke out, to Uncle Arthur, who was 32.
Uncle John and my mother, who was two years older, really were schoolchildren during the war. They spent part of it in Birmingham, and part of it evacuated to the country, to “safer” environs. Like every other child, they regularly participated in air-raid drills and they followed the siren songs into the shelters when needed. Like every other child, they learned “waste not, want not,” to eat every scrap on their plates, to save every bit of paper, string, tinfoil, and cardboard, just in case it could be used later or turned into useful bounty for the war effort. And like every other inhabitant of the British Isles, young or old, they never moved an inch without the bulky boxes holding their gas masks. Just in case.
Their parents, Tom and Molly, were in their 40s in September of 1939. Granny, who’d never driven a vehicle before, suddenly found herself learning to drive Great-Grandpa’s delivery van (he owned a small grocery shop on the outskirts of Birmingham), because the supply of willing and able young men who’d driven it previously had been called up to war (she never took a driving test in her life, being “grandfathered” in with her license after the war ended. Those who drove with her in subsequent decades can attest to this fact). Grandpa, who worked as an accountant at the Birmingham office of a Sheffield steel company, patrolled the streets at night, looking for blackout violations, spotting for German planes (spending hours at a time, no matter the weather, sitting on roofs and in ditches with his little Morse Code transmitter), and putting out small and large fires.
Birmingham, a hub of manufacturing and industry, was a prime target for German bombs, so Granny and Grandpa had a reinforced concrete bunker installed under their living room floor, and the family slept in it night after night, listening to the bombs rain down, and hoping that, in the event of a direct hit, they’d be safe and able to crawl through the escape tunnel into the garden. One day, they emerged into the morning light to find that the house immediately across the road had been flattened, and everyone in it killed.
My father’s side of the family was even more involved. Grandpa Charles managed a butcher’s shop on Broad Street in Birmingham, and during the war large quantities of its output went to the military (nothing new for him, as he’d been been a leader in the management of food rationing in the English Midlands during World War I).
Granny Louise, a stalwart of the Birmingham Horticultural Society, immersed herself in good works, among which was what came to be known as “Ma’s Knitting Bee,” a weekly gathering at the family home with neighborhood women from every walk of life, all knitting diligently for the troops. The “lovely, soft” wool yarn was the best available, and Auntie Pat was regularly dispatched on her bicycle to pick up new product from the supplier to be knit into hats, scarves, gloves and socks.
Mary and Issy, the two older daughters, both had jobs when the war broke out—Mary as a teacher, and Issy as an almoner at the local hospital. Like many with day jobs, (and like Grandpa Tom) they volunteered their evenings as bicycle messengers, as plane and fire spotters, and as checkers that the blackouts were properly maintained in order to confound the German bombers.
Auntie Pat, the youngest daughter (and the source of most of these family memories), was 16 in September of 1939, and had one more year to go in school. She and her classmates were excited to learn that the entire school was to be evacuated, for safety, to Attingham Park, a stately home in Shropshire. Upon arriving, they discovered that the old pile was “drafty,” “freezing cold,” and that “the food was terrible.” When she (gratefully) returned home for her teacher training course, Pat volunteered as a “bicycle boy” for the Home Guard, delivering messages, and doing whatever other odd jobs were required to help out.
Now for the boys. The oldest, my uncle Arthur, 32 when war was declared, was too old to be called up, but volunteered as an ambulance driver, going to his job as an accountant by day, and driving wounded troops, and ill civilians, to and from hospitals by night.
The second son, my uncle Maurice, volunteered as a fireman before he was called up in the middle of the war, and drove a tank transporter for the duration. (The Austin factory at Longbridge, just outside Birmingham, was mobilized for ammunition and tank parts production. As with many large manufacturing plants, an invisible “shadow factory” was built in massive underground tunnels beneath it, and the above-ground facility was disguised, complete with barns, haystacks, cows and sheep, to look like a farm from the air.)
Dad, the youngest son, joined the Loyal Regiment before the war started, in 1938, when he was 19. His war was fought variously in Egypt, North Africa, Italy (Anzio and Monte Cassino), and a few other places as well. The day before D-Day, he marched into Rome with the American troops and serendipitously met the Pope, proving once again my long-standing assertion that “things didn’t happen to Dad, Dad happened to things.” It’s just how he was. He survived the war, and I’m here to tell the tale.
While my mother and uncle slept in the aforementioned little concrete bunker, my dad’s family found refuge in the cellar of their enormous house, whose structure had been reinforced with tree trunks propping up the ceiling, (hopefully) to take the weight of the house if it were to be flattened by a bomb. My very industrious granny, who did not believe in idleness of any sort, insisted that each person have some work to do with his or her hands while holed up down there, and thus did Uncle Arthur learn to knit. Although the house itself never sustained a hit, the concussive effects of nearby bombs blew out windows on occasion, and wrought havoc in the garden.
Like most families in the UK during this time, both sides of mine scrimped and saved, conducted metal drives, glass drives, and rounded up whatever was needed, turning it in at the many collection stations, all to be turned into useful items for the war effort. Need some new clothes? Darn your old ones, or look in the wardrobe and see what you can reuse. Unravel an old sweater, and knit a hat and gloves from the yarn (mere civilians were not privy to the quantity or quality of yarn handed out to be used for the troops). Perhaps unpick one of Pa’s old suits and turn it into a dress for a special occasion. Stick a feather in one of his hats, and call it a fashionable chapeau. Need a new blouse? Lucky the girl who has access to a scrap of silk from a no-longer-useful parachute! Keep a few chickens, and perhaps a pig if you’ve the room for one, and consider yourself incredibly fortunate if you know someone with a farm.
Share. Dig for Victory. Live within your means. Recyle and reuse (no, this is not a 21st-century concept). Help your neighbor. Follow the rules. Pull together. (Of course there was a black market, where those with the means could secure ‘extras’ if they wanted to, but this was, for the most part, small potatoes in the great scheme of things. Among the great majority of the public, it was frowned upon as simply not done, and certainly as “not cricket” to buy your way out of the same sort of privation that your fellow citizens, through no fault of their own, were suffering–this probably explains the enduring popularity of the Queen Elizabeth, (the future Queen Mother) who remarked, following the bombing of Buckingham Palace, “I am glad we have been bombed. Now we can look the East End [of London] in the eye.” That, together with her refusal to evacuate herself and her daughters (“the children won’t go without me. I won’t leave without the King. And the King will never leave”), won her an lifelong place in the hearts of her people).
The very welcome first influx of American troops arrived in England on January 26, 1942, and, naturally, Granny Louise was one of the first to join the Birmingham committee set up to establish good relations by creating “weekends” for the troops to spend with a British family. And while, as many families did, my own enjoyed the generous gifts of chocolate, jam, and a new snack never before seen in England—popcorn—deeper friendships also grew. Thus it is that Auntie Pat still speaks fondly of Mr. Ragland from St. Louis, Terry Anderson from Des Moines, Colonel Hunter from Nebraska, and many others, including the brother of actress Anna May Wong, all of whom spent weekends at the family home. Some came back, bringing their own families with them after the war; some were visited by Auntie Pat when she came to the States in the 1990s. None of them has ever forgotten either their exigent circumstances, or the friends they made because of them.
(I should mention that many families with young and impressionable (girl) children weren’t quite so sure about the good intentions of the young
Greek gods G.I.s bearing gifts (especially gifts like nylons, chocolate, and lipstick) from points West. This would include my mothers’ side of the family. And girls, including my mother, were duly “warned.” Some even paid heed.)
While the march to victory didn’t progress in an unimpeded straight line from the moment Britain’s allies from across the pond hit the ground, the tide had turned, and it seemed victory in Europe was inevitable. As, indeed, it turned out to be, not quite three-and-a-half long and weary years later.
Several days ago, I spent a delightful hour on the phone with Auntie Pat (94 in July, may she live forever), my dad’s only surviving sibling. My reward for doing so was three pages of closely-spaced notes and stories, only a few of which I’ve included above.
At the close of our conversation, Pat said perhaps the most interesting thing of all. She said, “of course, afterwards, rationing continued for years. That was even worse than the war.”
I asked her what she meant.
“Well, you see,” she said, “there was no point. After all, we’d already won. Nothing we did helped or make a difference any more. It was just a miserable slog.”
And a little bit of an insight dawned on me, born of a people and a country who’d given their all, in blood, spirit and treasure, in two horrific and costly world wars only twenty years apart, who’d stuck together, who’d gutted it out together, and who’d won—dammit–together. Only to find out that their country was broke, and that their daily circumstances didn’t improve all that much, that they were still sometimes hungry, and wearing faded and patched clothes, and scrimping, and saving, and that they no longer even had an overarching and common mission, or goal, or even a feeling of usefulness in the struggle, which would make sticking together through all their continuing discomfort and sacrifice worthwhile.
If the years following the war sometimes frustrated and discouraged such doughty, stalwart and irrepressible members of the ‘greatest generation’ as my unsinkable Auntie Pat, then they must have been a very long and “miserable slog” indeed.*
And it set me to wondering whether the sort of national unity, and sense of purpose and mission, that involved and encompassed the entire population, which characterized not only Britain, but many other countries during the last World War, and which I think is as essential as anything else to lasting victory, is something that will, or even can, ever be recaptured. Or if there is any circumstance, or any threat that would be considered immediate enough, or serious enough, to muster it up. I’m not optimistic.
And for my family, for myself, and for the West, on this anniversary of a great celebration, I feel a lingering sadness.
*Rationing in Great Britain continued in full force for three more years until 1948, after which, starting with flour, it was slowly dismantled. Clothes were de-rationed in March, 1949, canned goods and jams in May of 1950, soap in September of 1950, sugar in 1953, butter in May of 1954, and any remaining meat rationing in July of 1954, a full nine years after the end of the war. No wonder Pat was so glad to see the back of it!